Reviewer: Stephen M Hornby
1957. Public performances of new plays were subject to state censorship and that meant an absolute ban on all things queer.
Raised eyebrows, pursed lips, layers of sub-text and innuendo had to be smeared over the transparent outline of any homosexual character in a play to make them visible at all.
1958. New guidance allowed for serious discussions of homosexuality, as long as there is no physical intimacy.
And in 1958, Shelagh Delaney’s play A Taste of Honey, puts the first ever working-class Northern homosexual character on the British stage, Geoffrey, an art student from Salford.
The play also featured a pregnant school-girl lead, Jo, a black sailor, Peter, a dual heritage baby and a raw but undefeated depiction of life on subsistence wages.
Delaney wasn’t just breaking taboos she was smashing them to pieces and burning their remains. And she was only 18 when she wrote it.
More than 60 years later and the passage of time has made some elements of the play seem more than simply dated.
Geoffrey is an effeminate, closeted, self-loathing homosexual, the kind who gets dismissed as a “pansified freak” and seems to accept it as fair judgement. In this production, Stuart Thompson is a fine embodiment though.
He leans into the closeted camp to just the right degree and manages to add some resilience to the core of the character.
Peter, the sailor, seems little more than an embodied penis, a particularly problematic element to the play when he is explicitly stated as being a black man.
The director, Bijan Sheibani, does try to ameliorate this with some added brief appearances from Peter between scenes, but the problem remains.
If these elements have not aged well, the central mother-daughter relationship between Helen and Jo has done better. This is the play’s real strength. Helen is played brilliantly by Jodie Prenger as voluptuous and cunning but not entirely unkind.
Jo, Gemma Dobson, gives as good as she gets in the tense rows for dominance between them.
Dobson does find the humour in the part, but misses undercutting it with moments of real vulnerability.
The original production featured a jazz band and Sheibani brings an able trio into the production but then chronically underuses them.
A piano, double bass and drum kit are placed actually in the set of the 1950s flat, dominantly the space and then for most of the second half sit there mute. It’s a strange choice, an idea only half-realised.
The production suffers from the size of space it’s playing in. Domestic drama requires a level of audience intimacy.
The cavernous space that the play is performed it works against it. And there are some basic issues of audibility that the director has not addressed.
This doesn’t seem like particularly timely or relevant production. It does contain some strong performances and great pace but it has lost the intimacy of the kitchen sink.
The desire to rightly valorise Delaney as a unique working-class woman’s voice from the period, perhaps also means that some of the problematic elements in the play get too blithely over-looked, as if a bit of jazz and a quick song made everything alright.
A solid cast, however, make this worth seeing.
At The Lowry until 21 September 2019, then on tour nationally.
Images by Marc Brenner